How Will You Measure Your Life?

by | Feb 5, 2020

Clayton M. Christensen (1952-2020)

Clayton Christensen died on January 23, 2020 at age 67 of Leukemia. Christensen was an entrepreneur, visionary thinker and a professor at Harvard Business School. He authored 11 books and many articles. He is best known for his book The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, which is one of the most important business books of all-time and was one of our firm’s book club selections a few years back.

The essence of The Innovator’s Dilemma is that established, successful companies often fail to respond to disruptive technologies because the new technologies initially are not profitable and don’t justify the investment. It is new companies, with no established profitable revenue stream, that are incentivized to take a risk on disruptive technology. From the book: “there is something about the way decisions get made in successful organizations that sows the seeds of eventual failure.” Great book.

For me, his most important work is his article How Will You Measure Your Life, published in Harvard Business Review in 2010, and later expanded into a book with the same name. I first read the article six years ago and it led me to realize that I had no idea what my life’s purpose might be. I know I wasn’t alone, as Prof. Christensen related: “It’s quite startling that a significant fraction of the 900 students that HBS draws each year from the world’s best have given little thought to the purpose of their lives.”

How Will You Measure Your Life is based on a class he taught at HBS. In the class he challenged his students to find cogent answers to three questions:

  1. First, how can I be sure that I’ll be happy in my career?
  2. Second, how can I be sure that my relationships with my spouse and my family become an enduring source of happiness?
  3. Third, how can I be sure I’ll stay out of jail? (i.e. act with integrity)

Christensen posits that whether we are happy in our careers directly relate to how we support and invest in others.

I tell the students about a vision of sorts I had while I was running the company I founded before becoming an academic. In my mind’s eye I saw one of my managers leave for work one morning with a relatively strong level of self-esteem. Then I pictured her driving home to her family 10 hours later, feeling unappreciated, frustrated, underutilized, and demeaned. I imagined how profoundly her lowered self-esteem affected the way she interacted with her children. The vision in my mind then fast-forwarded to another day, when she drove home with greater self-esteem—feeling that she had learned a lot, been recognized for achieving valuable things, and played a significant role in the success of some important initiatives. I then imagined how positively that affected her as a spouse and a parent. My conclusion: Management is the most noble of professions if it’s practiced well.


More and more MBA students come to school thinking that a career in business means buying, selling, and investing in companies. That’s unfortunate. Doing deals doesn’t yield the deep rewards that come from building up people.

With respect to relationships with our families and friends, our issues often relate to the misallocation of our scarce resources of time and attention.

Over the years I’ve watched the fates of my HBS classmates from 1979 unfold; I’ve seen more and more of them come to reunions unhappy, divorced, and alienated from their children. I can guarantee you that not a single one of them graduated with the deliberate strategy of getting divorced and raising children who would become estranged from them. And yet a shocking number of them implemented that strategy. The reason? They didn’t keep the purpose of their lives front and center as they decided how to spend their time, talents, and energy . . . . I have a bunch of “businesses” that compete for these resources: I’m trying to have a rewarding relationship with my wife, raise great kids, contribute to my community, succeed in my career, contribute to my church, and so on. And I have exactly the same problem that a corporation does. I have a limited amount of time and energy and talent. How much do I devote to each of these pursuits?

Here’s a final excerpt from the article, summing up his main point:

I’ve concluded that the metric by which God will assess my life isn’t dollars but the individual people whose lives I’ve touched. I think that’s the way it will work for us all. Don’t worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved; worry about the individuals you have helped become better people. This is my final recommendation: Think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success.

After reading How Will You Measure Your Life I set aside time each day to ponder what my life’s purpose might be. After months of consideration, I arrived at my purpose (this blog is a little part of it). It’s still evolving, but it’s been beneficial to have a sense of direction.


  1. This IFOD caused me to do a serious self-assessment of what I could have done better and what I am striving for the future. Thanks

  2. Thanks for sharing. Lots of info worth reflecting on here.

  3. Today’s IFOD is another reminder to me why it’s important for me to continue reading every one of your postings. I have not missed one! Thank you for sharing your wisdom, professor.

  4. At the end “ Did I love well?” is what matters.

    Sounds simple, but is not so easy.

  5. I had no idea so many others connected with the innnovator’s dilemma! Thank you for sharing this piece as it so succinctly puts into words the big ideas that I fail to eloquently convey when talking about the important questions he posits to friends and family. These are the deep conversations and ideas we should be talking about more often.

  6. John thanks for sharing. I will pass this along to my department and remind them of the intent. Funny that my husband and I would comment on the same day and that I was thinking of his work and precisely of what Debbie said about Bob Chapman. I recently had the opportunity to hear him speak and he reiterated the same sentiments. A life well-lived…. you’ve filled in the blank here. Thank you.

  7. John –

    Some days I have time to read IFOD, some days I don’t. I”m grateful that I had time this morning. This is a wonderful piece, and I’m going to go find the article.

  8. John, I read this book a few years ago at the recommendation of a friend and wished I’d read it earlier in my life. So I gave a copy of the book this Christmas to my millennial daughters! Appreciate you circulating the idea more widely.

  9. Yes! Love this IFOD! Are you familiar with Barry-Wehmiller CEO Bob Chapman and his philosophy of Everybody Matters? He wrote a book by that title that really spoke to me. Every one of his employees is someone’s precious child. The people-first culture of that company is phenomenal!

  10. Outstanding piece. One of your best. Isn’t this what it’s ALL about? Well done.


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